Emotional Reciprocity v. Emotional Generosity

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.” ― Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

I’ve been thinking a lot about love this week as part of week one of the FSSP. And I’ve found myself primarily focusing on how I want to be loved. Which, strangely, didn’t occur to me as the worst possible approach until I tried to sit down tonight and put together some thoughts about what I’ve “learned” in the process. Which as of an hour ago had amounted to, umm, nothing.

But, like any good Type A personality, I don’t like to fail at things. And it’s the first week. So instead of watching back to back episodes of Season 2 of Game of Thrones (so inappropriate but so addictive), I sat down with a stack of books (devotionals, bible, etc.) and tried to gut out something profound. This lasted about two minutes, at which point I Googled “how to love people.” Which is when I realized that I really, really, really didn’t learn anything this week. And that I suck at loving people.

Don’t worry… this was a turning point. (Otherwise this would be a very short, very depressing post.)

Most of my self-focused thoughts on love this week boil down to the idea of emotional reciprocity. Basically I feel the most loved when I’m in relationships where there is equality of investment. Ones where I want to hang out with the other person as much as they want to hang out with me, where we pretty much equally initiate communication, etc. Those blissfully mutual relationships that feel (at least for some magical period of time) like they’re both deeper and somehow less effort than other relationships. Your investment of time, trust, and emotion is immediately repaid in full. They just feel good.

The people with whom you have emotional reciprocity are the ones in your inner circle who want to be there. Trying to force someone to reciprocate your feelings is a quick road to hurt and anger. It’s a road I’ve found myself on recently so this is what I spent the week thinking about. [For those of you who are now completely distracted by the idea that the last sentence is my way of saying that I’ve been harboring unrequited romantic feels for someone and they’re just crushing my soul by not loving me back… sorry to disappoint you. I’m talking about friends here. Better luck next time. Now stop trying to guess who I hypothetically liked and focus.]

As of two hours ago I’d come to the logical conclusion that I needed to reevaluate my inner circle. The people who I was relying on were proving to be unreliable so they were getting cut and replaced. I made a joke that some people were being “cut from the team” and that I was “taking applications,” but this wasn’t too far from the actual plan.

So you can see why I found myself at loose ends when I sat down to write about how to love others well. I’d just spent the entire week thinking about how to make others love me well. Spiritual growth fail. 

This is the point at which I decided that my own logic was probably flawed and that I should maybe stop thinking so hard about love and start listening to what God went through a lot of trouble to tell us (over and over and over again) about love in the Bible. Which is when I ran into this little hammer of a verse:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” 1 John 4:9-12 (ESV)

This verse outlines something that runs completely contrary to emotional reciprocity. God loved us before we ever loved Him. His love is not contingent upon ours. God’s love paints a picture for us of emotional generosity. And as I read through verse after verse, this was the theme that kept coming back to me. That we are called to live lives that are emotionally generous. To love first, reach out first, listen first. Because doing these things doesn’t just tell others about who we are, but also about who God is.

We have the opportunity to be weak, broken mirrors that imperfectly reflect the blinding brilliance of God’s love, but that imperfect reflection can be the glimpse someone needs to comprehend that God could love them. That brief glimpse might be the thing that makes it just a little easier for them to step towards Christ.

So here’s my hypothesis: I think (hope) that the joy and purpose that we receive in the process of being emotionally generous will make up for what we give up by not seeking emotional reciprocity. Because, really, having relationships with people who don’t initiate text conversations  or hanging out as much as I do (no joke, these are the kinds of things I’m judging you all on) should be a pretty easy thing to accept when the tradeoff is the opportunity to better reflect God. And frankly I’m hoping that I learn to better understand, accept, appreciate, and enjoy God’s love for me in the process.

(And yes, I do realize that this entire thing just wrapped back around to me feeling more loved, which was my selfish goal in the first place. It’s funny how often God convinces me to take a different path and it ends up going somewhere that I wanted to go anyway but was failing to find….)

Okay, enough with the words. Let’s get to the action part of the FSSP. How do I execute on my hypothesis and actually love others better? I’ll tell you how. I’m going to pick three people and be intentionally emotionally generous with them this weekend. I just wrote their names down. Don’t worry, you’re probably not one of them. Unless you are. Try not to be paranoid if I’m being nice to you. Sometimes I’m just nice.

Anyway, in these three relationships I’m going to listen first, serve first, etc. without regard to how well the other person returns any of those things. And I’m going to do it with joy and a peaceful heart, knowing that this outpouring of my own emotional capacity is simply expanding the room in my own heart for God to fill with himself.

Win, win. I love a plan where everyone wins. Maybe these little love seeds will grow into something after all…

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